A text as ambitious as Malvezzi’s The Archetype of Wisdom provides a particularly challenging subject for review – precisely because of the wide aim and reach of this project. Far from considering the ambition of this work pejoratively, my intentions in this review are to make explicit the way in which Malvezzi’s text opens (or at least attempts to open) space for a philosophical project of much greater length. The text itself, standing at roughly 100 pages (omitting the use of illustrative plates) is very short, especially when this length is considered alongside the breadth of Malvezzi’s interest. Indeed, he acknowledges this explicitly when he states that the work’s wide angle makes impossible a certain level of comprehensively (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 15). It is therefore my view that The Archetype of Wisdom should be read as a kind of philosophical manifesto – as the extended opening remarks of a much larger philosophical project. As such, my review seeks to bring out the key components of Malvezzi’s position in light of the project this work seeming precipitates. Given the breadth of his project, it is perhaps understandable and forgivable that Malvezzi does not always tease out the full conclusions of many of the comparative claims he makes within his work. This review shall draw out these claims, particularly attending to the similarities and difference between Malvezzi’s project and Husserl’s phenomenology, as well as to how orientation figures within his work.
The Archetype of Wisdom is a bold unification of several distinct areas of scholarship. Not only is it a work of phenomenological philosophy, but it is explicitly concerned with classical architecture, and philosophy of religion – with the latter’s role in the text specifically concerned with questions of cosmology and metaphysics. Given its classical subject matter, the text raises further questions pertinent to history and archaeology – though these concerns are largely outside of my field of expertise, so shall not be central to my appraisal of this work. Malvezzi makes explicit that his primary concern throughout the text is with the spatial metaphysics of Greek spiritual thought, specifically with their conceptualisations of the relationship between what is considered human and divine. To paraphrase this, we could suggest that Malvezzi’s concern is with the constitutive relationship between practices of worship – with their explicit concern, in the Greek context, with wisdom – and the embodiment of these practices within physical space. In order to understand this, he insists, we must begin with the spaces within which this relationship was placed and enacted: the Greek temple. Yet no sooner than this project has established its central concern as architectural, it immediately problematises this notion, at once insisting that we must understand the temple as constituted both by its architecture and by the lived experiences of the Greeks. Through his early invocation of Schulz’s observation that “temples are regarded as “individual concretizations of fundamental existential situations””(Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14), Malvezzi’s project comes to rest its interests on the site of worship as a phenomenologically constructed space. The primary implication here is that Malvezzi’s project is concerned with how the Greek temple is a site wherein meaning and significance are constructed, mobilised, and proliferated – that the temple should be understood as the staging ground for particular religious practices that are primarily concerned with phenomenological experience. We are thereby implored to reject any understanding of the temple as a static system, as a fixed concretisation of some transcendent divine power, but as a site wherein and upon which “the changing conditions of life from all around are unceasingly acting” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 74). It is on these grounds that he presents his work as applied phenomenology. In so far as the temple itself represents the divine (and, for Malvezzi, on some level it clearly does) Malvezzi’s approach encourages us to consider the temple as an experience, which is to say in relation to those that use the site. As such, Malvezzi’s work foregrounds the relational aspects of the temple and the divine to human experience.
Perhaps the most overt point of continuity between Malvezzi’s project and the standard canon of phenomenology is his invocation of the term erlebnis. One of the central terms deployed with Husserlian phenomenology, erlebnis is experience in and of itself – the product of his specific schema of philosophical reduction (Husserl, 1982). The direct parallel within the context of the Greeks is the stress placed on the role played by pre-rational elements of thought when considering the wider, universal existential structure embodied within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14). Though some of us may be sceptical of this division between pre-rational experience and cognition, the Greeks – according to Malvezzi – mirror Husserl quite closely when they suggest that the point of their project is to investigate universal structures. Yet within this similarity is the implicit, yet stark, distinction between the erlebnis of Husserl and the erlebnis of the Greeks: the latter has an explicitly existential concern. As aforementioned, Malvezzi’s project is – at least in part – a work of the philosophy of religion, at least in so far as the focus on Greek life is within the conceptual framework of religious metaphysics. Taken together, these elements frame The Archetype of Wisdom as attempting to provide a phenomenological account of Greek religious experience, yet precisely what this project reveals is that these experiences express a clear existential attitude of humanity’s relationship to the divine.
This deep link between existential erlbenis and the Greek religious experience of the divine is further explored within Malvezzi’s brief treatment of other aspects of Greek architecture (loosely conceived). He speaks of monumental statues, those that depict mortals and Gods, represented in the like form of the human being. Their prevalence, for Malvezzi, speaks to the true object of reflection for Greek thought: “man himself” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For any concern the Greeks may have had with a transcendent divine, the transcendent becomes intimately connected to human experience – it works to ground the divine whilst also working to unground the everyday. In his consideration of these statues, Malvezzi focuses on the prevalent pose many of these monuments took – depicting the figure as taking a step forwards (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For Malvezzi, this is not to be read as a mere hint at movement, but instead allows us to read this statues as having intermediate dimensionality, as neither rooted nor moving, and this challenges the very idea of human stability. This becomes implicitly existential for Malvezzi, specifically in so far as it comes to challenge the advice of Tirtaeus: that one should “have both feet planted on the ground” (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 53–4). This picture of the fundamental existential condition as one of rootedness is thereby overcome by a new image: that of a youth looking at the world around him and attempting to find his path (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Though Malvezzi does not explicitly illuminate this as an existential dimension to his work, it is explicitly concerned with action. To extend Malvezzi’s reading of this example, we can regard the intermediary status of man – as expressed through the statue – as core to his reading of the Greek’s as phenomenologically oriented, for the youth is attentively considering the relationship between the world as he experiences it and his action. Though Malvezzi does not use the term, I think it useful to consider this image in terms of the language of orientation, specifically in the phenomenological sense explicated within Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006). Upon this reading, we can see Malvezzi present us with a reading of Greek architecture as furnishing us with a series of anchors upon which their philosophical practice hangs, with statues and temples acting as both sites of practice but further as points of reference, through which the Greek individual could find their orientation.
This notion of orientation, specifically as part of a process of disorientation and reorientation, becomes more overt (though is never actively avowed), within the Greek sense of the divine as Malvezzi explicates it. Importantly, his reading stresses that for the Greeks wisdom is rooted in experience itself, not upon the accumulation of information (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Again, we can see the clear link to Husserl’s project – in so far as the investigation concerns experience rather than specific objects of knowledge – but also, I hope, a clear point of divergence: the Greeks do not present this as a project with an end, their practice is innately sceptical of the codification of this experience. Greek spiritual practice never overcame the need for novelty, it cannot be codified precisely because this codification would be its end (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 79). This scepticism, on Malvezzi’s reading, is foundational within the very building of the temple itself, for the temple was to act as a site of provocation, as a reminder of the ‘divine experience’ at the root of Greek wisdom (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 13). Indeed, the temple itself is as far as the Greeks can go in terms of codification, for the temple is an approximation and a reminder of the divine experience itself, an experience that – being pre-rational – cannot be clearly expressed within language, and thus resists standard forms of philosophical codification (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 66). Expressed more succinctly – the temple itself is the best codification of this experience. Attempts at the rationalisation of this experience must, at least on Malvezzi’s account, be considered definitively as moving away from the experience itself. Whereas we may read Husserl as seeking what can be codified within experience, what rational structures we can tease out of the experience itself, Malvezzi’s account of Greek divine experience resists this kind of determination.
This is precisely expressed within the division between the two worlds: mortal and divine. The former is primarily characterised by peras, by ephemerality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 31). The mortal world is limited and determined, it is the realm of what dies. Conversely, the divine is characterised as apeiron, as that which cannot undergo any kind of determination (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 32). The world of mortals is limited just as the world of the divine is infinite. Understanding divine experience in this way, we must read Malvezzi’s as strongly differentiating between this experience and attempts at codification through rational thinking. Divine experience – being so limitless – challenges the limits of everyday life and thus cannot be approximated to them. We must recall that divine experience is fundamentally pre-rational for Malvezzi, and it cannot be rationalised without the experience itself becoming essentially changed.
Indeed, the opposition between rationalisation and the divine is most keenly expressed within Malvezzi’s treatment of chaos, which is considered as “unknown divinity” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Malvezzi appears to suggest a certain temporal structure to one’s relationship with the divine, as one at first encounters the divine as an unknown. One’s initial experience of the divine is presented in terms of unveiling – as aletheia – wherein the mind is opened to truth (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). Malvezzi expresses this by drawing on Hesiod’s account of the genesis of the divine: “at first Chaos came to be” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Hesiod presents this as a mythological account, as a creation myth for the Grecian pantheon. Malvezzi understands this as a part of the phenomenological process. Chaos is a logical opening, it is at once aletheia and epoche – it is the collapse of one’s preconceived ideas. But this collapse is an exposure to truth, not as a series of universal structures of thought or propositions about reality, but as a direct experience of harmonia. If we are to experience harmony – the divine truth, “an underground weaving from which everything can rise and vanish” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 35) – we must first experience chaos. Both are core aspects of the divine experience. For Malvezzi, divine experience is at once terror and beauty.
To best explicate Malvezzi’s view, I return to the notion of orientation. How he presents the phenomenology of the divine appears to follow a movement from orientation to disorientation, a movement engendered by the chaotic component of divine experience. Having passed through chaos, we arrive at harmony, we move from disorientation to reorientation. This reorientation is not a return to one’s original perspective, but a transformation of one’s relationship with the world. This new relationship is rooted in understanding, not as rationalisation, but as facing the divine substratum – as rootedness in one’s phenomenological experience of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). The movement to reorientation is the taking up of a divine orientation, the availability of which depends directly upon this experience. But this experience is transitory, its impression fades and we return to our original, everday orientation – and this precipitates a need to return to the temple, to relive our encounter with the divine. We must once again pass through chaos to reach harmony. Malvezzi does not provide an extended treatment of orientation in this way, though he does mention the concept in connection with Prometheus, who “showed men what to see and hear in order to get oriented” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). This is to say that Prometheus provides us with a shift in perception through revealing a fundamentally element of the world: fire. Through extending this metaphor of orientation, I have attempted to more clearly demonstrate Malvezzi’s position and its implications.
I regard Malvezzi’s project as heavily relying upon these notions of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation even if these are rarely avowed. Indeed, his project appears to suggest that the distance between the mortal and divine worlds is a precisely the distance between two forms of orientation. To be situated in one world or the other is a matter of one’s attitude, as to whether or not one is oriented towards the divine substratum or merely to the surface appearance. This is not to suggest that Malvezzi regards the surface as superficial in such a way as to dismiss it. Instead, the suggestion is that the Grecian model implies that the surface can only attain its full relevance and meaning through an appreciation of its divine support (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37).
Indeed, the fundamental distinction between the mortal and divine worlds becomes blurred in his discussion of Ananke. As a Goddess, Ananke is the divine personification of fate – she is at once a divine being and a constraint on divinity itself, for not even Gods fight Ananke (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 47). As a figure, Ananke comes to represent a divine limitation, she is at once apeiron and peras – blurring the distinctions between the divine and mortal worlds. The blurring of this distinction enables man to understand the divine through a new form of codification. For Malvezzi, Ananke is thus the possibility of accumulating knowledge about the divine, for her status is precisely that of a boundary. Accordingly, it is through her that we move from the fluidity of the divine to the solidity of the Gods – aspects of the divine personified and settled into entities. Malvezzi considers Ananke – and what is made possible through her – to be an advancement in the ontological status of the human being (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). By allowing the divine to settle into human shapes, mankind is given a framework through which they can conceptualise their relationship to the divine in a clear manner. A mythos is born and settled. The pre-rational experience is given a multitude of faces to facilitate its encounter with humanity.
But though the Gods are a result of this experience, though they are a codification of this experience into a more ready-to-hand framework of understanding, the Gods exist to be transcended. The very reason that the Greeks can afford not to resist the codification of the divine experience into Gods and yet could not afford to allow this experience to be claimed by reason is precisely because the Gods can point us back to the originary experience in a way that reason cannot. This is to say that rationalisation pulls us directly away from the divine experience, it leads us only into abstraction. As a form of codification, rationalisation keeps the experience itself at bay. The Gods, however, like the temples in which they are spatially located, become sites of experience in and of themselves. This is to suggest that the Gods return us to the divine experience, that they enable us to experience harmony.
On Malvezzi’s account, the Gods thus become vehicles for experiencing the divine, which at once return us to this experience of chaos and then harmony, but which also foreground a human element of this harmony. This is fundamentally why the Gods are concerned with wisdom, not because they provide codified doctrines of teachings, but because each of them provides human beings with access to wisdom. Wisdom, on Malvezzi’s account, is the phenomenological experience of, and ability to interact with, the invisible harmony of the world. Wisdom fundamentally depends upon this phenomenological experience, which in turn depends upon the conditions embodied within the temple and its Gods. As such, it would be appropriate to extend Malvezzi’s use of architecture to suggest that temples and their Gods are themselves the architecture of wisdom, as well as the archetype.
To extend Malvezzi’s project into the claim that the Gods serve as an architecture of wisdom is to foreground the temple as a catalyst for a phenomenological encounter with the divine. Malvezzi’s project has a strong historical thread through which he provides a reading of the origins and development of the Greek temple. Though I provide a summary of his account here, this subject is beyond my specialism and thus I am in no position to appraise it. Malvezzi’s history begins with the tѐmenoi, the “cut out lands” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 19) that serve as the predecessor’s to the Grecian temple structure. These were sites of worship in the open air, closed off spaces that were dedicated to a God – sacred spaces surrounding an altar. Such spaces are closed off in the sense that they are set apart from the corresponding outside: the mortal world. The structure of the tѐmenoi as closed off establishes the sanctity of these spaces as grounded in a shift away from everyday life. Central to this shift is that the tѐmenoi served as thresholds between civilisation and the natural world. Indeed, the location of these were not considered as accidental or as part of civic planning – but as chosen by the Gods. What marked these locations as chosen were their natural features, and thus we can see the roots of the temenoi and the divine within the natural world. Malvezzi notes that for the Greeks, nature was not to be regarded as a “dead”, for nature was alive (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 21). What this means philosophically is the suggestion that for the Greeks, nature was more than a factic state of affairs, not merely a collection of creatures and plants to be regarded merely as resources, but that the Greek spiritual life has its origins within the divinity of nature. Due to its association with the divine, however, it is unsurprising that the natural world was considered as distinct from the mortal world: from the civilised world of the polis. Malvezzi’s therefore regards the temenoi as sanctuaries that sat at the margins of the polis, marking the physical and psychological thresholds between civilisation and nature (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 22), between the known and the unknown, between the mortal and the divine.
Therefore, Malvezzi’s proposes that the general structure of the temple is that it constitutes an interstice between the two worlds – but this is not to suggest that each temple is identical. Malvezzi stresses the observations of other scholars who suggest that temples are each unique, that their construction cannot be entirely reduced to a singular schema (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 65). Despite this, Malvezzi asserts that there is a clear commonality upon which we can comment, and this is the use of light within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70). His treatment of the phenomenological experience of the temple comes to focus on the act of entering the temple and approaching the altar. Typically, the temple would have a single entrance, acting as the sole aperture through which light could enter the building. As this entrance was at the opposite end of the building to the altar and the God – herein represented as a statue – the procession towards the architectural representation of the divine would have been a walk into gradually intensifying darkness (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 80). One’s entry into the space was occasioned by the placement of the columns, which would again come to divide the internal sections of the building. Importantly for Malvezzi, the placement of these columns deliberated evoked a sense of a permeable boundary (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 69), crossed by the worshipper entering the holy site. Due to the single entrance, Malvezzi describes the temple as a prism, diffracting not only light, but also reality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70).
This image of worship amounts to what I regard to be Malvezzi’s most original claim within this project: that the temple demonstrates how the act and practice of worship was itself implicitly spatial for the Greeks. The temple is a space that one moves through, it is a path out of the mortal world and into the divine, a sojourn of discovery. The sculpted stones of the temple were regarded as living, as imbued with soul through the art of construction – all united within the secret recipe for arousing a sense of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 76, 81). It is for these reasons that Malvezzi speaks of the temple as grounded within a human hope that it was possible for all men to have this experience.
The Archetype of Wisdom is an ambitious project, drawing on resources from myriad disciplines across the academy. As a synthesis of these perspectives, Malvezzi’s work provides a compelling suggestion as to how we can productively read the Greek temple, as to how these sacred spaces can provide us with testimonies about Grecian practice, experience, and cosmology. Philosophically, Malvezzi draws several productive connections between Greek practice and later works of phenomenology – especially in his treatment of erlebnis and, in my suggestion, his implicit comments on orientation. Though I consider the text to provide a convincing demonstration as to the utility of pursuing a phenomenology of the classics, it remains limited in the amount it can achieve given its relatively short length. On these grounds, I consider The Archetype of Wisdom as a proposal for additional work – a proposal that implicitly calls for a collaborative effort across those disciplines with which it interfaces. In particular, it would be productive to consider this project alongside archaeology, which is mentioned somewhat sparingly in the text. Finally, another element that is somewhat absent from this text is a consideration of the temple as a political site, thus any further work within this area may wish to consider what contribution could be made by political philosophy. None of these omissions are damning to the central thesis of the text – but each could be addressed in whatever projects Malvezzi’s work precipitates.
Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, Durham.
Husserl, E., 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Nijhof, The Hague.
Malvezzi, R., 2018. The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Review of the Greek Temple. Mimesis International, Milan-Udine.
 Malvezzi does not expand upon any connections between his use of this term and its place within the work of Heidegger. This may be another fruitful comparison for any future work.
Mereology is the philosophical study of parthood and composition. These are fairly commonplace relations. My legs are part of my body; the handle is part of the mug; Stewart Island is part of New Zealand. Canis Minor comprises two observable celestial bodies, Gomeisa and Procyon (itself a binary star system). Like all stars, Gomesia is composed of gases, mostly hydrogen and helium. The philosophical project is of course not concerned with creating a catalogue of the parts of things (although perhaps some philosophers will engage in conceptual analysis, reflective equilibrium, experimental philosophy, etc., to settle specific ‘compositional’ questions—a toy example being whether we ought consider, say, the ice cubes in the glass a proper part of the cocktail or not), but to inquire into the nature of the two relations, parthood and composition. Indeed, this is the ‘narrow’ understanding of mereology that Giorgio Lando adopts in Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction. Accordingly, mereological inquiry “is only about the formal features of the relation of parthood, and about identity and existence conditions for wholes” (p. 2, emphasis in original). Thus Lando leaves debate about other concepts in the vicinity such as essentiality, dependence, supervenience, and so on, to other areas of metaphysics. (I shall set aside questions about whether this move is legitimate or not—I will simply follow Lando’s narrowing of mereology’s domain in his book given its aims and scope.)
In the book, Lando introduces, motivates, and defends a theory about parthood and composition. It is not a novel theory, but a sensible tweak of the view dominant in twentieth century analytic philosophy, Classical Extensional Mereology (CEM), associated with Nelson Goodman, W.V.O. Quine, and David Lewis, among others. Despite its great influence (and its rejection by many contemporary scholars), this is the first book-length exposition and defence of CEM, filling a significant gap in the literature. The writing is clear and accessible, and thus the book deserves its subtitle; I cannot think of a better in-road into modern analytic mereology for the uninitiated reader than via an extended consideration of CEM. That said, there is also much in the book for the initiated. Participants in the debate will want to respond to Lando’s defence of CEM and thought-provoking critique of purportedly intuitive counterexamples.
CEM is the thesis that (1) parthood is transitive (i.e., if A is part of B, and B is part of C, then A is part of C), and (2) given some things, there is a unique thing composed by them. The first conjunct is thus the principle of transitivity applied to parthood; the second is the conjunction of the principles of uniqueness of composition and unrestricted composition. Lando articulates these latter two principles as follows: “given some things, there is at most one thing composed by them” and “no matter how heterogenous and disparate they are, there is at least one thing composed by them” (p. 1; emphasis mine). CEM is usually intended to be a unitary, exhaustive theory of composition and parthood (which has led Kit Fine to dub it ‘mereological monism’). However, Lando restricts its scope to concreta. Fair enough. In my view (admittedly, a nominastically inclined view), for any theory of mereology to be plausible it must do well when it comes to physical objects, first. I’ll return to this point later.
CEM is widely attributed to David Lewis, given his comments in his 1991 book, Parts of Classes. Lando’s defence, however, is not a mere recapitulation of Lewis’s views, since Lando and Lewis part ways on several key issues. Indeed, Lando takes these points of departure to be stances where Lewis’s version “stand at the basis of the discredit into which mereological monism has fallen” (p. 7). First, Lando disagrees that mereology is a logical doctrine. Of course, mereological theses can be axiomatised and expressed in some logical framework, but Lando points out that this does not identify mereology with logic. This issue is discussed in chapters 3 and 10.
Second, Lando emphasises mereological controversies, against Lewis’s claim that mereology is unproblematic, certain, perfectly understood. Plausibly, Lewis is best interpreted as making a normative claim: i.e., “that mereological monism should not be a topic of philosophical controversy” (p. 9). Lando argues that this normative claim too is wrong. The main purpose of the book, Lando writes, is to provide “an in-depth analysis and balanced assessment of mereological monism”, within a nominalistic framework that is “not everyone’s cup of tea” (p. 9).
Third, Lando disagrees about the application of CEM to abstracta. As noted, he explicitly restricts his application of CEM to spatiotemporal, concrete entities. After all, abstract entities (if they exist) are finicky. It is all too easy to use alleged abstracta to violate some mereological principle: one simply stipulates that some abstracta violates it. Lando hopes to show in the book that “abstract entities are both the most difficult and the least important field of application of mereological monism, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that counterexamples to mereological principles can be found among abstract entities. Concrete entities are the decisive field of application for mereological monism” (p. 10). Hear, hear.
To be sure, despite his nominalist leaning, Lando does not outright deny the existence of all abstract entities. After all, debate about which (if any) abstracta exist falls outside Lando’s narrow conception of mereology. Rather, Lando concedes a restriction of the application of CEM to concreta. This is probably the right move for Lando to make. So, “the general thesis of the book is that Classical Extensional Mereology is a highly general theory of parthood and composition. Analogously, mereological monism is understood as the thesis that there is only one highly general theory of parthood and composition. Given these stipulations about terms such as ‘general’ and ‘monism’, the difficulties of mereological monism in the realm of abstract entities do not defeat it” (p. 11; emphasis in original). This is discussed in chapters 5, 8, 12 and 13.
Fourth, and finally, Lando departs from Lewis with respect to the Composition As Identity thesis. As far as Lando is concerned, Lewis’s contention that composition is (like) identity is not an integral part of a defence of CEM and nor is it constitutive of CEM. Although the Composition As Identity thesis has engendered an increasing literature, of which much is orthogonal to a defence of CEM, Lando aims to show that CEM can be presented and defended without a foray into identity, and without “its typical, obscure, tendentiously circular jargon according to which a whole is ‘nothing over and above its parts’, or ‘a whole and its parts are the same portion of reality’” (p. 12). This issue is discussed in the appendix, where Lando argues that the Composition As Identity thesis conflicts with his narrow conception of mereology. The idea is this: “Insofar as Leibniz’s Law is a constitutive principle of identity, to claim that a whole is identical to its parts is to claim either that they share all or some of their properties or that something similar is the case (e.g., that the features of a whole determine the features of its parts, and vice versa). This consequence has nothing to do with the formal features of parthood, and with the identity and existence conditions for wholes” (p. 12). Thus the Composition As Identity thesis “runs counter to the need to separate the explanatory scope of mereological monism from other areas of metaphysics” (p. 13).
So, in summary, Lando supports CEM—the thesis that parthood is transitive and that given some things, there is a unique thing composed by them—i.e., the general mereological framework associated with Lewis, except to say “mereology is not logic, but a problematic metaphysical doctrine; it fails to work for many abstract entities; and we should not say that a whole is identical to its parts. Still, mereological monism is a defensible and promising metaphysical doctrine about concrete entities. This—I contend—is the interesting core of mereological monism” (p. 13).
The book is split into three parts: The Methodology of Mereological Monism (Part One), Extensionalism (Part Two), and Unrestricted Composition (Part Three). I briefly outline each in turn.
Part One (chapters 1-4) explains what CEM, understood as a highly general thesis about composition and parthood, is all about, with an eye on methodological issues. In chapter 1, Lando notes the ambiguous nature of the English lexeme ‘part’ and its cognates. Lando places several constraints on parthood’s formal characterisation by considering some intuitive presuppositions about what it is to be part of something, in the literal sense; he distinguishes genuine, literal parthood (i.e., what mereologists are concerned with) from merely metaphorical parthood (e.g., when lovers proclaim they are both ‘part of’ one another) and other cousins of the notion of parthood at stake in mereological debate (e.g., selective parthood).
Chapter 2 explains why mereology matters: for example, mereological theses place constraints on, and can be used to refute, various metaphysical positions. Taking seriously certain mereological theses also restricts the range of available solutions to various philosophical puzzles. To give just one example that Lando mentions, David Lewis famously argued that set membership is not parthood, given that set membership violates the principle of transitivity, an essential aspect of CEM. The general idea goes as follows. Let L be the set of all Low records (the album by David Bowie), and let DB be the set of all sets of David Bowie records (which thus includes L, and also H, the set of all Heathen’s, E, the set of all Earthling’s, and so on). My copies of Low and Heathen are members of L and H, respectively, but they are not thereby members of DB. Indeed, DB has no records as members whatsoever, but sets. This refutes the hypothesis that set membership is formally equivalent to genuine, literal parthood (at least, if we are operating under CEM’s jurisdiction; that is, taking seriously CEM constrains the identity and existence conditions for wholes: having members is not identical to having proper parts).
Chapter 3 is a foray into formality, explicating connections between mereology and formal ontology, and distinguishing various characterisations of formality. Chapter 4 discusses several key concepts (transitivity, reflexivity, and antisymmetry) standardly taken to be features of the parthood relation. Again, take transitivity, an essential feature of genuine parthood, according to CEM. Lando discusses some potential counterexamples; firstly, the idea due to Nicholas Rescher that according to biologists, a mitochondrion is a part of a cell, the cell is a part of a tissue, but the mitochondrion is not a part of the tissue. Lando puts the apparent force of this objection down to a curious feature of the English language. He suggests that removing the indefinite article preceding ‘part’ clears things up: “the mitochondrion is part of the tissue”; after all, “it is in it in a spatial sense” (p. 48, emphasis mine). Transitivity is preserved. Secondly: “The left arm of a Kemalist MP is part of her; the Kemalist MP is part of the parliament. But it seems definitely wrong to claim that the arm is part of the parliament” (p. 49, emphasis in original). The contention that this is an intuitive counterexample, Lando claims, is due to the polysemy of ‘parliament’ (e.g., the building wherein MPs discuss matters, or the social institution of parliament). Note that on whichever equivocation one has in mind, the claim is no longer a viably sensible one about genuine parthood. Alternatively, if ‘parliament’ is taken to mean set of parliamentary members, then we are back in the set theoretic domain of membership, not the mereological domain of parthood. And Lando says set membership “seems to work exactly as the relation between an MP and its parliament” (p. 50). This seems sensible enough to me.
Part Two (chapters 5-9) considers the uniqueness of composition—the principle that given some things, there is at most one thing that all of these things compose—and extensionalism—the connected idea that complex (i.e., multi-part) entities that comprise the same proper parts are numerically identical. Uniqueness of composition implies extensionalism, but not vice versa.
In chapter 5, Lando connects extensionalism to his nominalistic framework. According to the framework adopted, structure is not part of an entities’ composition. The pile of playing cards on my bookshelf comprises 52 cards; were I to build a house of cards, I would not have thereby brought something new into existence (contra mereological pluralists who wish to preserve some variety of realism about structure). The card-house and card-pile are composed of the same parts; they are the same complex entity, just with a different spatial arrangement at different temporal stages. Structure, then, is ‘safely obliterated’. Lando distinguishes his approach from Nelson Goodman’s, and argues that CEM respects Kit Fine’s four principles of obliteration (absorption, collapse, levelling, and permutation).
Chapter 6 distinguishes the uniqueness of composition from extensionalism, and discusses some cases in which the two diverge (so-called ‘fake’ ways of respecting extensionalism but not uniqueness of composition). Thus Lando introduces the reader to the useful Hasse diagram machinery. In chapter 7, Lando argues that alleged counterexamples (ones in which a structured entity and its co-located portion of matter are concerned: e.g., the infamous ‘statue and clay’ example) are reconcilable with extensionalism. The literature on these sorts of cases is massive. Lando argues that as far as these cases are concerned, either some given structured entity and its co-located portion of matter are not in fact distinct (but—following Lewis—can be thought of from different perspectives which select for different modal profiles when considering different counterfactual situations, or which make certain properties—e.g., aesthetic properties—salient), or that they are non-identically composed after all (and thus there is a difference with respect to their parts). He then argues that controversial cases involving change over time, like the Ship of Theseus, do not pose special problems for extensionalism. And in chapter 8, Lando distances extensionalism as a plausible principle about concreta from being a plausible principle about abstracta. He outlines several strategies for reconciling abstracta (e.g., linguistic types) with extensionalism: deny the existence of the abstract entity at stake, deny that the entity is abstract, deny that the entity is involved in the parthood relation at all, or revise the application of parthood so that extensionalism is not violated. Non-extensionally composed abstract objects, were they to exist, would pose a remaining problem for Lando’s view, and he concedes as much. Chapter 9 explores some alternative (non-classical, non-extensional) mereological theories. Lando concludes that although some of these theories are “technically irreproachable and relatively conservative” (p. 65), they are otherwise not well motivated.
An aside: when I began reading this book I assumed that Part Three would be where Lando and I part ways. I can accept parthood’s transitivity and Lando’s nominalism, and the counterexamples to extensionalism/uniqueness of composition do not move me. However, unrestricted composition—the principle that no matter how disparate/heterogeneous some given collection of things are, there is something that these things compose—is, pretheoretically at least, outright bizarre (not to mention overly ontologically profligate). To his merit, Lando goes a long way to offset this worry. My main complaint will be the short shrift given to alternatives, especially mereological nihilism.
In Part Three, then, Lando considers the various arguments in favour of unrestricted composition and finds them convincing. He also analyses, and finds unconvincing, the kind of objection mentioned above: that unrestricted composition is exasperatingly counterintuitive. The defender of CEM need not think that there is any interesting or salient entity that is composed of, say, Big Ben and my red pen. That entity is neither spatially continuous nor causally efficient. But, the idea goes, claiming that these two parts compose something is perhaps little more odd than the idea that Procyon (11.46 light years from Earth) and Gomesia (162 light years from Earth) compose something: Canis Minor. But because Canis Minor is listed in Ptolemy’s 48 constellations (and for other reasons), I for one find it interesting (even though it is not spatially continuous or causally efficient). I cannot say the same for Ben-pen (reluctantly supplying a specific natural-language sortal predicate for this mereological fusion). But perhaps this is a contingent matter.
Mereological fusion can thus be thought of as a function (or, in Goodman’s terminology, a ‘generating relation’) from parts to wholes. CEM does not require of wholes that they “play any explanatory role, participate in causal links, or play any role in an exhaustive description of the world” (p. 193). Wholes do not “instantiate any interesting, autonomous properties. They would inherit the properties of their parts” (p. 193). If a window were to get hit by a cricket ball, it would be redundant to claim that it was hit by something in addition to the arrangement of its parts; the ball and the parts that comprise the ball are co-located. There is no additional matter that CEM claims exists as well as the whole’s parts—so as far as physical stuff is concerned, the principle of unrestricted composition is not as ontologically profligate as some might think (indeed, Lewis thinks of his version, which includes an additional commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, as ontologically innocent; wholes on this view are an ‘ontological free lunch’, to use David Armstrong’s expression), and is happily compatible with nominalism (it does not say anything about what kinds of entities exist, just that of the things that exist, any combination forms a mereological whole). Since Lando’s theory does not include a commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, it may turn out on his view that unrestricted composition is less ontologically innocent than Lewis supposes: on the list of things that exist, we might need to include the cricket ball in addition to all of its parts (and in addition to all of the possible merelogical sums of its various parts, and so on), violating the eleatic principle. The proof will be in the pudding. Nonetheless, about allegedly intuitive counterexamples to unrestricted composition, note that just as using the word ‘car’ allows us to pick out a familiar object composed of various parts, using the expression ‘Ben-pen’, then, allows us to pick out a (less commonsensible, admittedly) entity composed of parts. The difference is just that we would not be inclined to talk about Ben-pen outside of philosophical discourse. Indeed, Lando admits that the principle of unrestricted composition vindicates all manner of “heterogeneous and redundant entities that are never to be mentioned outside of philosophy” (p. 193). That said, Ben-pen, trout-turkeys and car-bouquets “could become relevant, and begin to fall under certain sortal predicates” (p. 199).
Chapter 10 provides Lando’s preferred way of formalising unrestricted composition (i.e., with plural quantification) and distinguishes it from less perspicuous alternatives. Chapter 11 clarifies Lando’s definition of ‘fusion’ and provides a discussion of its formulation in first-order logic. Chapter 12 considers some counterexamples to unrestricted composition (à la Ben-pen), and chapter 13 provides an argument in support of it (largely following the ideas of Lewis, Sider, Quine, and Donald Williams—the ‘argument from vagueness’) according to which mereology should be neutral. It shouldn’t distinguish between ‘interesting’ fusions like mugs and people and Canis Minor and ‘uninteresting’ ones like Ben-pen. The basic idea comes from Lewis. If you accept that things have parts, and that parts comprise wholes, there is no precise, non-arbitrary stopping point. Now, ‘Big Ben exists’ is not a vague sentence; “nothing in the sentence that expresses the existence of a fusion is vague. By contrast, the conditions under which we would want to restrict composition are vague: this means that these conditions cannot be satisfied” (p. 180, emphasis in original), because although certain predicates are vague, existence is not. Chapter 14 wraps up by discussing some upshots for non-Quinean metaontology.
Let’s say that you agree with Lando that composition can’t be non-arbitrarily restricted. You might still reject unrestricted composition, by denying that composition is a relation that is ever instantiated. The main opponents of unrestricted composition are mereological nihilists, who say just this (or something very close to it). According to Peter van Inwagen, chairs do not exist—only the mereological atoms (‘simples’) exist. A so-called chair is thus merely simples-arranged-chairwise. (Likewise, so-called Ben-pen is merely simples-arranged-Ben-penwise). For van Inwagen, living entities are a non-arbitrary, principled exception to mereological nihilism; on his view, composition only occurs in organisms. The pros and cons of this move cannot be discussed here. For Theodore Sider, composition does not even occur then. For Sider, the only wholes are the limit case (i.e., a simple is a whole, comprising only itself)—no objects with proper parts exist. Mereological nihilism is not directly opposed to transitivity or the uniqueness of composition (these being trivially true according to the view), just unrestricted composition. Other mereological positions claim that composition is restricted in a rather brutal way, or that existence is vague, to mention a few. Lando does not push against these views, “partly due to space constraints and partly because the motivations and the articulation of these stances do not belong to mereology [as a discipline] according to the narrow understanding of it” (p. 199). This is unfortunate.
Take mereological nihilism. Lando says that it “requires a massive strategy of reconciliation with our referential and cognitive practices, which seem to involve lots of complex entities with parts, and perhaps no mereological atom at all” (p. 199). Yet it’s not obvious to me why it can be so easily cast aside in a book-length treatment of mereological monism. Many theorists distinguish between the ‘manifest image’ of, say, a table, and the ‘scientific image’. We are all aware that tables are made up of ‘simples’ (fundamental particles, or whatever is there at the fundamental level) and are thus mainly empty space, and yet we percieve the table as a solid object and refer to it as such. That’s fine, and is by and large part of ‘folk knowledge’ these days. And it might be more straightforward to reconcile just how we perceive and refer to middle-sized ordinary objects like tables and chairs with nihilism than Lando supposes. If perceiving a chair and referring to it with the term ‘chair’ are re-described in light of the scientific image as perception of, and reference to, the ‘manifestation’ of simples-arranged-chairwise, mereological nihilism comes off as less revisionary. It need not matter that we don’t directly perceive the fundamental particles themselves. (Of course I admit a much more sophisticated discussion is needed than this to fully allay Lando’s worries, but also it is true that CEM has revisionary implications!)
There is the thought that we have no need to posit a commonsense entity in addition to what the scientific image tells us is there: arrangements of fundamental entities. Simples arranged tablewise do the same causal work that tables do; tables, that is, are casually redundant. And by getting rid of tables from their ontology, nihilists can appeal to a principle of parsimony. Since Lando avoids commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, he may be committed to the existence of tables in addition to simples-arranged-tablewise, and yet, this commitment appears redundant: the simples arranged tablewise (the entities that the scientific image vindicates) do all of the explanatory and causal work that tables do, and have scientific credentials. If composition is identity, then wholes are an ontological free lunch, but one’s ontology is just as good without them. And if composition is not identity, there is good reason to cut mereological wholes from our ontology. A commitment to wholes begins to look suspect, one might think.
So is nihilism the better option? I can’t here adjudicate on this issue further. The literature on alternatives to CEM is vast after all. But deciding which side to come down on seems to be a matter of one’s intuitions and balancing of theoretical virtues. Both mereological nihilism and CEM are counterintuitive theories: nihilism denies the existence of tables (unlike CEM), but at least it doesn’t vindicate Ben-pen (as CEM does). Defending brutalism or the vagueness of existence comes with other unsavoury implications. And so the debate in the literature has turned largely metametaphysical: about whether (say) parsimony is an appropriate theoretical virtue for deciding between various options, and about whether it is appropriate to demand a fact-of-the-matter answer to the question of whether wholes exist. But these questions, of course, are beyond Lando’s intended scope.
Time to wrap up. Lando’s Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction introduces, motivates, and defends a tweaked version of an influential thesis, CEM, in the domain of concrete entities. And this Lando does extraordinarily well. The book would well suit a higher-level undergraduate course on mereology (probably supplemented with a reading or two on mereological nihilism, brutalism, etc.) or a postgraduate seminar focused on the prospects and pitfalls of CEM. Its clarity and depth of explanation would be welcomed by students and instructors alike.